Archive for January, 2012
The 2012 election is heating up, so it’s time to start applying this book club to real life. Today, even though I vote Democrat, I’m going to explain how conservative economics makes liberal sense. Sort of.
Disclaimer: I’m not formally versed in economics, I just read this book recently. But if you are so versed, and want to school me in the comments, by all means. And if you aren’t and things get confusing, read yesterday’s primer on Keynes & Hayek for context.
To get a sense of the strange ways Ayn Rand has impacted American politics, look no further than the arguments between Alan Greenspan and Ron Paul during Congressional oversight hearings, excerpted in Paul’s book End the Fed. Greenspan was a member of the inner circle that workshopped drafts of Atlas Shrugged with Rand herself. Paul named his son Rand. Yet despite their shared philosophical background, they are completely at odds over the economy.
Greenspan, of course, ran the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006, and Ron Paul hates the Fed. A lot. During the GOP debate on 1/23, he spoke about how the government doesn’t manipulate the economy through price and wage controls (aside from a minimum wage, I suppose), but it does manipulate the economy by controlling interest rates and money supply. That’s the Fed. Paul’s economics are pure Hayek, so he thinks we shouldn’t do that. Peg the value of the dollar to gold and leave the economy alone. After all, since capitalism is undeniably the most efficient system for creating vast amounts of wealth, we should want the market to be as free as possible.
But some people aren’t so sure the wealth capitalism generates will automatically get distributed on the merits, and the libertarian vision is completely neutral to outcomes. Increasing income inequality and declining social mobility are only the technical terms for, I don’t know, the Death of the American Dream, but to a pure libertarian the American Dream was only possible thanks to the nation’s laissez faire roots, so as long as the system goes back to that model the socioeconomic outcomes will be right by definition, no matter what they are.
Which means if Ron Paul became president and had a Tea Party congress to back him up in liquidating the national debt and dismantling the Fed, the global economy would undergo a severe contraction, but that would just prove the whole arrangement was built on an illusion in the first place and any terrible consequences caused by ending it would be necessary adjustments to get back on a sustainable track. From the perspective of the people in this hypothetical whose lives were okay until Ron Paul’s policies rocked the world, this logic seems obviously insane.
Despite that, Ron Paul is vital to national politics because of his extreme ideological purity. People criticize the Republican party for prizing ideological purity over all else, but the real problem is that mainstream Republican ideology is not pure, it’s a sick, self-contradictory mess. Ron Paul’s system of belief is internally coherent even if it’s externally problematic: he has integrity.
For example, Ron Paul’s policies for restoring American prosperity are not aimed at lowering unemployment, because under pure Hayekian liberty the unemployment rate at any given moment always reflects the best the economy can do; anything better is just a bubble waiting to burst. Can’t find work? Tough shit. Put down the bong and learn how to compete for the jobs that actually exist, or prove your ideas are valuable in the free market and create some jobs yourself. That part sounds Republican enough.
Yet in the same debate where Paul talked monetary policy, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney were in a rhetorical arms race over who could create more jobs by cutting Mitt Romney’s taxes from 15% to zero. That isn’t honest Hayekian politics, it’s pandering. The rich donor class likes the tax cuts, the struggling masses in the voting class like hearing ‘job creation.’ But cutting taxes to promote job creation is actually Keynesian.
After all, insofar as people spend their untaxed money it will stimulate demand, which will boost the economy and thus, eventually, employment and tax revenues. JFK did this. Granted, those were demand-side “trickle-up” cuts, not supply-side “trickle-down” cuts. But either way the law of diminishing returns applies. Cut taxes too much and the growth won’t produce more tax revenues on the other end. It becomes fiscally irresponsible.
The key to all of Keynes’ ideas is that they’re cyclical guidelines, not hard and fast rules. The economy crashed? Cut taxes and spend money until it fuels a positive feedback loop. But once the loop is running, STOP. If the economy is booming, raise taxes and save a budget surplus. That way, next time the economy hits a negative feedback loop, we can cut taxes and fund public works out of the surplus and not rack up such a big deficit. Fiscal responsibility! Conservative and liberal policies are both right, they just need to take turns.
Now, Keynesian spending can be a problem — flood the economic engine with too much money and it stalls out (stagflation). Or even worse (and this was Hayek’s fear), it can make the up and down swings sharper instead of smoother. Like, say, if you give tax deductions and tax dollars to home-owners who can’t afford a mortgage, that creates a bubble. Or if you give out massive tax cuts during a boom, that explodes the deficit. But neither Barney Frank nor George Bush was masterminding an evil conspiracy. They don’t even like each other. It’s just the same mechanism at play as in lobbying: systemic corruption without widespread individual corruption.
So clearly politics gums up the Keynesian On/Off switch. Once politicians hand out Keynesian dollars, it’s very hard to stop. They’d lose votes! What if the business cycle slumps when they’re up for re-election? They’ll overuse Keynesian tools to stay in office! Indeed, this is part of why our tax code is a mess of deductions. Look no further than President Obama’s well-received State of the Union Speech. Great speech; I liked it. But it involved a lot more tax complicating than tax simplifying.
Once Keynesian spending becomes never-ending and aimed towards specific interest groups by career politicians, it actually could trigger Hayek’s Road to Serfdom feedback loop. But as we see today, private enterprise is part of that. It’s the corporatist-lobbyist-politician loop. George Orwell himself pointed out in his review of Hayek’s Road that the people are right to fear corporate serfdom as well as state serfdom. Fascism is both, after all. It’s a balancing act.
Hayek actually considered himself a liberal, but in classical terms, where it’s defined by economic liberty and only out of that can social liberty grow. He said of conservatives that they are only as good as what they’re conserving. Today’s Republican policies would conserve deficit-expanding tax cuts and a 70-year bipartisan tradition of endless deficit spending on the military-industrial complex. If Hayek’s Road to Serfdom is a vision of a bankrupt police state, the conservative party in America today is steering a course down that very road.
What then of the Democrats? They use the language of Ayn Rand’s villains, the language of social justice. And they’re part of the corporate-lobbyist-politician axis too. Yet neither group is full of secret nihilists; Rand is way too cynical there. Voters on both sides aspire to live by their principles and are maybe a little naive about policy, or like Rand’s heroes they simply can’t fathom their enemies or see their own flaws.
The reason I vote the Democratic side of the not-backed-by-gold coin is that the Democratic party’s parallels to the Randverse are straightforward and end there. Rand nails the naive self-defeating angle, and I get that. But that holds for the GOP too, and then on top of that the language of the Republican party has gone disturbingly meta. Conservative rhetoric uses Rand/Hayek arguments in ways that would produce the Rand/Hayek nightmare scenario. It’s not just self-defeating, it’s self-contradicting. It’s a Jim Taggart move if ever there was one. Except in our world it’s Rand’s language playing the role that social justice language plays in the Randverse. Ironic, idn’t it?
Standing in the middle of all this is Ron Paul again, who demonstrates both the incoherence of mainstream politics and the inability of a rigid ideology to solve the problem. He is anti-Keynes, so he’s in the party that calls itself anti-Keynes. But both parties use (and abuse) Keynesianism.
Basically Keynes is like a drug. Drugs can be medicine. They can be a social lubricant. But you need to use them in responsible moderation. Hayek doesn’t want us to overdose or drive drunk or end up broke and homeless (oops!). So credit where it’s due: Keynes is the most influential economist since Adam Smith, and not without reason. Hayek was an economist, sure, but his truly important legacy is his political philosophy, which warns us about the dangers of Keynes’ powerful insights.
And even Hayek cuts across today’s political lines. In his last major work, The Fatal Conceit, Hayek was as radically libertarian as ever. He suggested we should privatize pretty much everything. But he also said the state should enforce a universal health care mandate and guarantee unemployment insurance, even if private companies supply them. That way, maybe, even at the bottom of the business cycle, people wouldn’t be desperate enough to vote for a well-meaning party that would accidentally turn the country into a militarized police state. Maybe.
So yeah. Conservative economics makes liberal sense. Sort of.
Previously on Food for Thought, I took Atlas Shrugged out of its original context and put it in 21st century terms. Specifically, I described the book’s world in terms of modern pop culture by way of our greatest television dramas. Then I examined how the plot of Atlas isn’t just a powerful libertarian vision for conservatives; it’s a progressive tragedy for liberals too. This week I’m adding to the mix the economic debate over The Great Recession. It’s the reason I read this book in the first place in 2008, and it’s the reason our political battle lines in 2012 look so eerily like the Randverse.
The story of today’s economic debate doesn’t really start with mortgage-backed securities. It starts a hundred years ago with two economists whose views now symbolize the American left and right: J.M. Keynes (D-England) and F.A. Hayek (R-Austria). Most of this post will be sourced from this excellent book on them, but if you’re already familiar with these guys skip ahead to Hayek Anxiety.
John Maynard Keynes was an economics prodigy during World War I who wrote a book calling bullshit on the Treaty of Versailles. He predicted that the brutal debts forced onto Germany would lead to socioeconomic collapse, radical politics, and some kind of nightmarish second World War. Aside from being 100% right, the book was a smash, making Keynes an intellectual celebrity for the rest of his life.
Meanwhile, Friedrich Hayek was a young scholar who saw Keynes’ predictions coming true first-hand and was in awe of his intellect. When the two met as adults, they had great respect for each other, even as their philosophies grew more and more opposed.
What was the root of that opposition? The Great Depression.
Keynes saw millions unemployed and all the shuttered factories and shops and thought it was ridiculous that these problems couldn’t simply solve each other. He figured if the government ran a deficit to fund projects like fixing and building roads, it would put idle people to work, which would give them money to spend, which would give businesses customers, which would allow businesses to start hiring again, which would get more people back to work earning more money to spend on more businesses. Unemployment drops, growth returns, the economic engine runs smoothly again — even better in fact, because it’s now running on shiny new roads that expand and integrate markets. And with things going strong, the government can pay back the deficit it incurred during the slump by using the bigger tax revenues created by the boom. Voila!
This is the reasoning behind the economic stimulus. Each step seems logical and the end result seems like a natural consequence of the steps. But try to pitch it in a sentence. Everybody’s short on cash? We can spend our way out of it! It sounds like a magic trick.
Too much like one, according to Hayek. Hayek was schooled in classical economics to consider things from the ground up. Keynes’ top-down view of the economy as one big machine seemed totally alien. In the classical view, prices mark a point of natural equilibrium that emerges from the chaos of every individual decision in the economy. Any attempt to manipulate the economy from the top down only disturbs that equilibrium. No matter how long you push it off, the day will come when everything (like, say, housing prices) inevitably crashes back to its natural state. In this view, the only appropriate response to a crash is to let the market shake itself free of the bad influence or you just set up the next crash.
Every time Keynes wrote a piece arguing for his crazy new ideas, Hayek was the guy who would write a response saying “Well I just did a ton of math about this and I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Keynes eventually got tired of that and spent a decade writing a book known as The General Theory in which he single-handedly invented the entire field of macroeconomics (which is now half of all economics) just to prove he was right. Needless to say Hayek didn’t get around to responding to that one directly. And besides, the American government under FDR was field-testing Keynes’ ideas in reality and liking the results. Case closed?
For the next forty years, Keynes’ model dominated policy in the Western world. But Hayek never gave up on his warnings. During the Keynes-predicted World War II, Hayek wrote a book called The Road to Serfdom that made a prediction of its own. “Hey, I’ve seen a government promise to save a radically depressed economy from the top-down before,” Hayek said. “It’s called Nazi Germany. Wake up people!”
Except the real point was that you don’t have to be evil Nazis to turn totalitarian (just as you don’t need corrupt congressmen to produce a corrupt congress). Once you start manipulating the economy at all, even for good reasons, you disturb the natural equilibrium, which causes new problems, which encourages you to meddle even more, causing more ripple effects, leading to more government intervention and on and on until one day you’ve saved the economy so many times you’ve turned into Soviet Russia by accident. The Road to Serfdom, it turns out, is paved with good intentions.
Unless you’re Ayn Rand, of course, who basically adopted Hayek’s thesis as the plot of Atlas Shrugged, but refused to grant good intentions to anyone except her protagonists, who hate good intentions and consider anyone who speaks in the language of good intentions to be an incomprehensible moral pervert. This is the part of Rand’s writing that is truly, utterly bizarre and let’s face it, morally perverse. Even libertarian bloggers acknowledge that there is literally no way to be more cynical than Rand is here. Already, long before we’ve reached the heavy, technical parts of her philosophy, we can tell something isn’t right, and here’s why:
In Food for Thought #1, I quoted Scott Tobias’ line that Atlas‘ ideas are hindered by its aesthetics. But it’s more accurate to say that Ayn Rand’s aesthetics hinder many of the ideas in Atlas (such as Hayek’s), and it is Rand’s ideas that hinder the aesthetics themselves. In About the Book I noted that Rand’s definition of art is ‘a selective re-creation of reality according to the artist’s metaphysical value judgments.’ She also says that the artist doesn’t have to make those judgments consciously; the art will still reflect them. So basically the qualities of one’s art are a natural outgrowth of one’s inner philosophy. And the qualities of Rand’s art are ugly. Ipso facto, her philosophy is ugly.
But does that mean it’s untrue? Or is it just pretty to think so?
Let’s refer back to the real world. In the 70s the economy sank into something called stagflation that didn’t fit Keynes’ model, and so conservative economists came back to power under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who had both read Hayek’s Road to Serfdom political philosophy. After forty years of Keynes’ fans running the show, Hayek’s got their forty-year turn, and they too oversaw economic growth.
It wasn’t until 80 years after the Great Depression that had sparked the debate in the first place that the global economy suffered another epic collapse. And we should know, because we were there. Now conservatives claim the Keynesians set off a ticking time bomb between the 30s and the 60s. Liberals claim the Hayekians ruined a good thing through willful negligence from the 80s to the 00s. How can we know who’s right?
We’ll tackle that question head-on tomorrow when I take the Rand/Hayek worldview and apply it to the 2012 election, in the first post of a new series called “Applied Randology.” Bookmark the Club now and join in.
Okay we are now three chapters deep in Atlas Shrugged and the plot skeleton has finally developed real meat on its bones, specifically in the bar scene with Jim Taggart and the other villains of the piece. On the surface it’s pretty dry stuff, flat even, but it’s meaty because this is where Rand starts making points that are, at least from today’s perspective, both conservative and liberal.
Right off the bat she illustrates what she learned in Russia about how leftist socioeconomic policy can ruin the competitiveness of the market. The Tea Party approves. But the context of this lesson, strictly speaking, is a cabal of established businessmen who instigate the government’s malfeasance by warping the law to their own desire. Occupy Wall Street approves too! The Randverse, it turns out, is not as partisan as conventional wisdom would have you believe. In fact, despite Rand’s heroic feats of oversimplification, her world is riddled with dilemmas. I’ve embellished the text in two places to accent this:
The bigger and more dramatic of the two updates is the nature of the energy crisis in the book (or, “in the book”). Ayn puts the phrase ‘natural exhaustion of the mines’ in the mouth of the evil Orren Boyle, while the valorous Ellis Wyatt has struck new oil through sheer force of will. So Rand sees the problem as a withering of human ambition and not a genuine environmental limitation or the cause of catastrophic climatic side effects. Granted, she was writing in 1957 and you can’t predict everything about the next half-century.
But if the energy crisis (“in the book”) is legitimate, the villains while still villainous are at least reacting to real threats, just poorly, and our two main protagonists, Dagny and Hank, are effectively the champions of 21st century progressive projects like high-speed rail and sustainable development. All this reorients the way Atlas maps onto our real-life politics in ways that are far more interesting than going by the author’s, you know, actual intentions, and as such this new paradigm will become increasingly important as we progress.
The second update I make is the substitution of the word ‘lobbyist’ for Rand’s phrase ‘men in Washington.’ Again, by Rand’s account, the catalyst for state interference here is a syndicate of elite market players who work with influence-peddlers like Wesley Mouch to protect themselves from market forces. The vast majority of Americans today recognize that as a real problem and see lobbyists as the poster boys for it.
Generally speaking, conservatives blame government bloat for our troubles, because bureaucracy is inefficient and creates opportunities for rent-seeking (political science for ‘bribes’). Unfettered business is the natural corollary to their desire to shrink the state. Liberals blame the concentration of power in the corporate class for our troubles, since this class can fetter business to its own ends through lobbying, as a sort of covert class war. The truth is that the distinction is akin to arguing over whether a coin is all heads or all tails.
But the reality of how we ended up this way is more complex than the Randverse can contain. To explain that reality in three paragraphs I’m going to draw heavily from Lawrence Lessig’s new book Republic Lost, which you should buy here for more info. Here it goes:
Over the last three decades, the cost of running a campaign has skyrocketed into a financial arms race. Candidates need either a personal fortune or corporate backing just to compete. The average member of Congress now spends 40-70% of her time raising money, and the more competitive her district is (that is to say, the more a vote actually counts), the more money she’ll need (so the money counts first). She also no doubt won office by championing a couple of high-profile issues that she genuinely cares about, but now she has hundreds of votes to make on a wide variety of issues about which she knows very little. With no time to study obscure technical matters, she needs help to know how to vote and why. That’s where the lobbyists come in.
They aren’t buying results per se. They’re providing congressmen who don’t have enough hours in the day with vital background on all sorts of wonky topics. Is the research in their reports slanted towards the interests they represent? Certainly. But that’s obvious and they naturally work with the congressmen who are already friendly to their interests due to a vague sense of shared values (just like how voters pick their congressmen!). In short, they provide what political scientists call a “legislative subsidy.” If, for example, you agree with this post so far but didn’t have the details to back up your opinion before, I’m providing you with an “argumentative subsidy.” That’s the value lobbyists ostensibly bring to the table, but in the case of governing it creates a vicious circle.
The laws of the land end up de facto written by various lobbies in various uncoordinated bits and pieces, resulting in ever more technocratic votes that leave Congressmen relying ever more on lobbyists’ help. The tangle of statutes produced gets so convoluted that you need, say, a phalanx of lawyers to understand it. That creates a bias towards big companies, which creates barriers to entry for start-up businesses, stifling competition. In the end the established businesses have done right by their investors but wrong by the market as a whole. The congressmen have done right by their constituents, voting their values on the issues that defined their campaigns and sending pork projects back home to boost the local economy, but they’ve done wrong by the country and our Constitutional institutions as a whole. Everybody hates Congress but likes their Congressman.
Maybe you noticed what this perverse dynamic doesn’t require: explicit pay-offs or quid pro quos. The ways in which lobbyists introduce politicians to major donors definitely skirts that line, but everybody networks, right? Individually, everybody’s doing what you would do too. Considering the social structure of their day-to-day lives and the personal cost/benefit dynamic, everyone’s behavior is in their rational self-interest, and pretty normal. Even if no one is corrupt, everyone’s actions in the aggregate produce a corrupt society. How can that be? Everyone is satisfying their rational self-interest just like Rand wanted, with the end result being the societal decay that she feared. All the powerbrokers are getting what they need but not what they’ve earned, while the true innovators who could address real, impending, potentially apocalyptic issues like energy scarcity and climate change are tarred as controversial figures whose goals are obstructed by a dysfunctional civic culture. Hey wait, that’s the plot of the book!
So in Rand’s favor she gets the broad strokes of today’s problems right, but her personal life philosophy actually enables those problems. Rational self-interest, it turns out, will not suffice as an ethical standard of behavior unless the impact of the individual on his culture is part of what defines that rationality. Anything too selfish is corrosive to the climate, political or otherwise, and exposes ‘self-interest’ as having been defined too narrowly.
Yes, in the recaps I joke that Ayn has a thing for fascism when describing her heroes. But fascism is often described as collusion between big business and big government, and that’s exactly the state of affairs
we live in she depicts as villainous. Likewise, if you read Benito Mussolini’s definition of fascism, certain phrases about human values and the failures of egalitarian democracy seem straight out of Rand, even as the statist politics he promotes are the total opposite of her libertarian vision.
By the same token I think updating Atlas to include modern lobbying and the climate & energy crises is actually true to the spirit of Rand’s work despite her political legacy because of the cognitive dissonance it provokes. Keep in mind that many of those who fund the most powerful lobbies and shower money on politicians preach Rand’s philosophy even as it condemns their behavior (Koch Brothers, I’m looking at you) — a self-contradiction in the very style of James Taggart.
And that makes Atlas Shrugged a self-fulfilling prophecy about a philosophy of self-fulfillment whose adherents are self-contradicting in direct contradiction of their self-styled philosophy causing the philosophy’s prophecy to become self-fulfilling. Holy Meta!
Next week I’ll be following the Monday Chapter 4 recap with more Food for Thought on Wednesday. If you’re intrigued, please subscribe by e-mail or RSS at the bottom of the page, and if you like, get caught up on the reading.
PREVIOUSLY: Dagny Taggart is a badass.
Another Taggart train is barreling down the track, this time past a giant steampunk city of plants, mills, girders and smokestacks, all emitting a molten orange glow. This is the Rearden Steel complex. An economist on the train ponders what role the individual has left to play in our post-modern technological age. A journalist makes a note that Rearden puts his name on everything just like
Donald Trump some huge douche.
A pillar of flame erupts somewhere in the metalworks, and what these guys on the train don’t know is that it’s Dagny Taggart’s first order of Rearden’s experimental alloy being manufactured. Hank Rearden himself watches from inside Steampunk City, his face ‘unyielding,’ ‘cruel,’ and ‘expressionless.’ Blonde, too. Ayn Rand clearly has a type, and that type is Aryan. This fascist motif seemed like dark satire at first, Ayn, but now you’re creeping me out.
Satisfied that things are going smoothly, Hank decides to take a leisurely stroll back to his estate and reflect on the ‘quiet and solemn’ sensation of seeing one’s life work fulfilled. He has, after all, pursued the realization of this dream for ten years, ever since he first envisioned an alloy that ‘would be to steel what steel had been to iron.’ He remembers
the days when the young scientists … waited for instructions like soldiers ready for a hopeless battle, having exhausted their ingenuity, still willing, but silent, with the unspoken sentence hanging the air: “Mr. Rearden it can’t be done.”
Looks like he’s got some of that reality distortion field action going.
His recollections drift even further back in time, to when he first opened Rearden Steel here in rural Pennsylvania even though everyone called him a fool for investing in a state that industry and manufacturing had left long ago, leaving only an impoverished rust belt in their wake. Okay Rand, you get some prophetic brownie points this week. Credit where it’s due.
Right, Rearden is reveling in this epic catharsis, feeling at peak charisma, knowing that he is The Fuckin’ Man right now, and wishing there was someone around to bask in it with him.
He fingers a bracelet that he had custom-made out of the first batch of Rearden Metal. It’s for his wife, but he realizes that the person he always imagined giving this bracelet to is still his wife in an abstract, ideal sense, and not Lillian, the actual living and breathing wife waiting for him at home. That’s a downer.
Rearden arrives at his house — decidedly less impressive than Steampunk City, with ‘the cheerless look of a nudity not worth revealing.’ As he steps through the front door his testicles magically teleport out of his scrotum and into a jar on the mantle above the fireplace, around which his wife, mother, brother and a family friend are having some kind of high-falutin’ chat about the state of the world today.
Lillian is wrapping up a thought about how all modern ‘men of culture’ find engineering boring when they all notice Hank and immediately start giving him a guilt trip for being a workaholic and never spending time with them. His desire to announce the triumph of his will (Ayn, seriously, take it down a notch) is immediately taken down a notch, because these people totally Don’t Get It.
First off, his mother is a terrible, undermining harpy. She’s like Livia Soprano (Pop Culture Character Substitution of the Week #1). Just miserable. Meanwhile, he and his wife have this toxic passive-aggressive thing going on. He feels like she doesn’t understand him and she feels totally neglected by his obsession with his work. They are both right (see next picture).
Their dynamic is demonstrated as follows: First, Lillian tries to catch Hank for not remembering the date of their anniversary, the night of which she wants to host a big party. That’s three months away so maybe, she’s hoping, she can get some time with her husband at least penciled in on the schedule. He agrees. Begrudgingly.
Then he tries to bridge the gap by presenting her with the bracelet, but she reacts as if he were a toddler presenting her with a macaroni and glitter Picasso. “Oh look, that’s so… nice.” His borderline personality mother calls him conceited and berates him for not buying his wife diamonds like a real man. Christ, this woman. At this point he sits down by the fire with them, perhaps to feel closer to his severed cojones. But no, he is withdrawn and exhausted now.
The family friend, Larkin, leans over for an aside. “Listen, Hank, I’m not one of those haters. I think your new alloy is awesome and could definitely change the world. Which is why you need to be careful,” says Larkin. Now it’s Rearden who Doesn’t Get It. “A lot of people don’t like you,” Larkin explains. “They could try and take you down. Through the press, for example. You should think about getting a PR department.” Rearden is old school and would rather let his work speak for itself. “Well who’s your lobbying firm?” Larkin presses (the specific phrase is ‘your man in Washington’), and Rearden just shrugs. He’s got one but he doesn’t even know the name. “Not good enough, Hank. Get in this lobbying game, for real. It’s super-important. Way of the future, okay? Watch your back.” Hank laments that lobbyists are all scumbags and he doesn’t like hiring scumbags for anything, but Larkin just shrugs with a “Hey, that’s the way of the world. Who is John Galt?”
This flippant attitude about cultural decline kind of pisses Rearden off for reasons he can’t articulate, and he starts chewing over his emotionally distressing relationship with his unbearable family. They’re all needy and ungrateful, but he has so much boundless energy and creative ambition to spare it would be unjust not to share it, or at least the spoils of it, with his flesh and blood, right? Nonetheless, he can’t stop seeing them as neurotic arrested development cases. Or Arrested Development cases — his mother is clearly Lucille Bluth as well as Livia Soprano, and his good-for-nothing brother has enjoyed a costly and fruitless college education on Hank’s tab just like Buster.
Said brother now hits Hank up for ten grand for a charity event he’s involved with, and Rearden goes along with it as if it were in the celebratory spirit of the evening, even though any spirits left in the evening at this point are bad wines turned to vinegar. Even if nobody says it everybody feels it, because they immediately go back to sniping at each other over their inferiority complexes as soon as Buster gets a yes out of Hank.
The evening winds to a close as Lillian puts a button on the conversation and sums up everyone’s tangled feelings towards their stoic benefactor by demonstrating her new bracelet to everyone as ‘the chain by which he holds us all in bondage.’ Look Lillian, I know your marriage is a soul-crushing disappointment, but the guy is in the room. Anyway, who’s in the mood for champagne?
Food for Thought is an ongoing series of posts that will react to the book earnestly, foregoing the snark of the chapter summaries. Since this is posting alongside the first of those summaries, consider it an aperitif. We’ll start light and wade into the novel’s heavier issues as the story develops.
One of the distinctive features of doing this as a weekly blog is the serialization of the narrative over many months. And with thirty chapters it wouldn’t be that hard to reconfigure the book into 10 episodes of TV (as opposed to, say, a half-baked feature film trilogy) much like the Game of Thrones adaptation.
So to tease some of the book’s conceptual potency for the skeptics, I’m going to quickly stack Atlas up against three television serials whose excellence is widely agreed upon.
LOST — Okay, I know the overall quality of Lost is still disputed by those who don’t like the ending, but in some ways that makes it all the more apt a comparison. And besides that, don’t listen to the haters — Lost hit way too many home runs to be cast away for pulling a Casey at the Bat in the bottom of the ninth. In fact, I dropped a Lost reference in the very first paragraph of the recaps, comparing John Galt to Jacob, the God-like figure of The Others’ mysterious religion.
Like Jacob, Galt is a hands-off puppetmaster who hovers ominously over the lives of all the other characters. And to take it even further, Galt’s various undercover agents (keep an eye out for them in the recaps) are exactly like the vast network of Others embedded in the off-Island world, withholding information about Galt/Jacob’s secret realm and protecting that realm while simultaneously recruiting potential candidates to go there.
MAD MEN — This is probably the most obvious point of comparison, since characters on Mad Men have specifically cited Atlas Shrugged and even told Don Draper he is a Randian Übermensch. Also, both works fetishize the aesthetics of an earlier America.
But in a broader sense the two are alike in observing a world on the brink of immense change and upheaval, evaluating the people in that world by whether they live by values that will thrive in the future or get mired in ways of thinking that are doomed to the dustbin of history.
The vital distinction between these visions is that Mad Men‘s Matthew Weiner has humanistic empathy for his characters, who, much like real people, struggle to be true to their best selves, to even know themselves at all (and this is the existential condition portrayed by Lost too).
In Atlas Shrugged however, Ayn Rand sketches only Manichean avatars of flawless valor or abject cowardice. Opportunities for nuance and depth are there in many places, but Rand lets them pass her by out of some bizarre disdain for human feelings. Whenever the novel’s heroes experience emotions, they refuse to express them, or are uncomfortable having them, all while the narrator insists they aren’t actually feeling anything at all, and certainly not the emotions said narrator is describing at length. It robs the piece of artistry, and it’s a self-inflicted wound. As Scott Tobias puts it in his AV Club review of the derided Atlas film, “Its ideas are squandered by aesthetics.”
THE WIRE — Often called the Best. Show. Ever. by its fans, The Wire focuses on a world sliding inevitably down a slope of corruption and decay where redemption is only available on an individual level and institutional reform is hopeless. So the Randverse, basically. But The Wire prizes realism and appeals to many people whose politics are far to the right of David Simon’s, whereas Rand venerates her ideals alone and regards other worldviews with contempt, leaving only her ideological cohorts to support her work (excepting yours truly).
The Wire‘s ideas are enhanced by its aesthetics because it pays enormous attention to the complicating details of life, and because it treats all of its characters as distinct individuals, just ones who can never truly escape society’s tangled web of irreconcilable incentives. Not even radical individualists like Omar Little are islands unto themselves. The game is the game, always.
So in The Wire, while some in power are corrupt and some aren’t, all powerful people are inevitably led by their rational self-interest to make decisions which harm other members of society in ways nobody could have anticipated and which only the viewing audience has all the necessary perspectives to appreciate. The end result is that even though The Wire and Atlas share a bird’s eye vision of society, The Wire‘s eyesight approaches a keen 20/20 while Atlas’ is woefully myopic.
But obviously I think the book is still worth something or this blog wouldn’t exist. I just think its primary virtue is vast unfulfilled potential. And the only way to tap that potential is to discard Rand’s moral absolutism and focus on the complicating details that she tries so hard to abolish. Doing that is ultimately what this blog is for.
Basically, just imagine that Atlas was adapted into a one-and-done season of TV, reworked as progressive tragedy, produced by David Simon, shot by the Mad Men team, and working from a script by Damon Lindelof (with George Pelecanos ghostwriting the climax). Considered from the right perspective, it’s a story that could blow your goddamn mind.